Image: Johannes Woolard
Just an hour south of Oban, to the north of Lochgilphead and the Kintyre peninsula, lies one of Britain's most important concentrations of prehistoric and bronze age remains. There are more than 800 ancient monuments here, 150 of which are prehistoric.
Kilmartin Glen has been populated for at least the last 5000 years, and a huge part of its impressive history is visible in the landscape today - from ancient rock art, bronze age burial chambers and medieval castle to World War 2, there is enough here to keep you occupied for days.
There's also plenty to see besides the history. The scenery might be less dramatic than elsewhere in the Highlands, but it's no less stunning. There are some excellent walks in the area, as well as the option of boating or cycling along the Crinan Canal. Nature lovers will want to try and spot the beavers living wild at Knapdale, just to the south of Kilmartin.
Surprisingly for somewhere with such incredible attractions, almost every activity in Kilmartin Glen is free of charge.
Prehistoric rock carvings
Kilmartin Glen is home to the biggest collection of cup and ring mark carvings in Europe. There are over 100 known sites ranging from a single cup-marked rock to highly decorated panels. Major concentrations in the area include those at Achnabreck, Cairnbaan, Kilmichael Glassary, Baluachraig, Ballygowan, Ardifuir, Glasvar, Leckuary, Ormaig and Poltalloch.
Not only does Kilmartin Glen have the biggest collection of cup and ring marks in total - Achnabreck is the location of the biggest single group found in Europe. The name is Scots Gaelic and means speckled. The views from here are absolutely stunning - on a clear day you can look down over the town of Lochgilphead.
To visit the carvings, take the turning on the east side of the main road halfway between Lochgilphead and Kilmichael Glassary (just north of the Crinan Canal) and follow the bumpy forest rack up to the car park. From the car park, it's an easy 1.5-mile circular walk up to the carvings and back.
Overlooking the Crinan Canal (Britain's most beautiful shortcut - see below), this is the site of another set of elaborate carvings. The view is almost as good as the one at Achnabreck - and it's also just a short walk to see it. The easiest way to get here is to park at the Cairnbaan Hotel on the Crinan canal.
Cairns and standing stones
The most visible feature in Kilmartin Glen is the linear cemetery - this arrangement of burial cairns runs over three miles south-west from the village of Kilmartin. Five cairns still survive here, but crop marks and other traces suggest that there used to be many more. The cairns are all from the Bronze Age (except for one, which is originally from the Stone Age but was rebuilt in the Bronze Age).
Prehistoric burial cairns exist all over Europe, but Scotland has some of the best-preserved examples, and Kilmartin Glen is the best place to see them in mainland Scotland (Orkney has an even more impressive collection of cairns, and is definitely worth a visit as well!).
Interestingly, the English word cairn derives directly from the Scots Gaelic word carn. An old Scots Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, "I'll put a stone on your cairn".
The best way to see the cairns is to park at the Kilmartin Museum (see below) and follow the well-signposted path from here.
There are standing stones everywhere you look around Kilmartin Glen, but the biggest set is at Nether Largie Stone Circle. They stand about halfway along the line of cairns and form a huge circle. The central stone has 23 cup marks and three sets of ring marks (see above).
To get to the stones, park in the large car park on the east side of the B8025 a short distance south of its junction with the A816, then cross the road and follow the wooden path across the field.
This whole area is dotted with castles and forts - varying from ancient fortifications that have almost disappeared, to perfectly-maintained castles that you can even stay the night in!
A rocky crag in the middle of the great moss (or bog) at the bottom of the glen, this hill was first fortified around 2,400 years ago. In the 6th century AD, it became the main castle of the Kings of Dál Riata, the first Kings of Scotland. This was the home of the Scotti, the tribe which gave Scotland its name.
Dunadd was a major political centre, making contacts and alliances with other major kingdoms of the day. It was also a centre of trade and imported many goods including dyes from France, exotic spices and wines. Ships negotiated the River Add, connecting the Kings of Dál Riata with the rest of Europe.
To get there, follow the signs on the small turning west of the main road between the villages of Kilmartin and Kilmichael Glassary.
Found just to the north of the village of Kilmartin, this castle was built between 1565 and 1572. The original occupant, John Carswell, went on to become Bishop of the Isles. Like so many local monuments, it has a violent history - in 1690 Clan Maclean burned the castle down, stole 2,000 cattle and murdered the uncle of the local laird.
The view from the castle down the glen is one of our favourites. To get there follow the main road north out of Kilmartin and take the signposted small road on the left.
There aren't many castles you can turn up and stay a night in! Only recently renovated, this 16th-century castle is one of our favourite B&Bs. If you'd like to stay, why not add it to your tour when you book with us?
"How many museums can you go to where you can examine a Bronze Age pot and look out of the window and see the burial mound where it came from? "- Tony Robinson
This excellent museum is right in the middle of the village of Kilmartin. The exhibitions of local artefacts are really interesting, and they also have a really good cafe.
Right next door is Kilmartin Church. This was built in the 1830s and is a bit of a pet hate of many architectural historians (apparently they think its a bit dull and badly proportioned). Most people are more interested in the magnificent celtic crosses than the church itself. The most complete of these dates back to around 900AD.
Outside in the churchyard, there is a remarkable collection of sculptured medieval grave slabs. There are two main groups of stones - the Poltalloch stones (originally for the Malcolm family, hereditary owners of the Poltalloch Estate nearby), and the main collection around the corner.
Just down the road at Knapdale is possibly the worst-kept secret in Scottish wildlife circles: Beavers were introduced here in 2009 and can regularly be seen on Loch Coille Bharr.
This whole area is covered in Atlantic Rainforest, which is the perfect habitat for the huge variety of mosses, liverworts and ferns which form the basis of this place's incredible biodiversity.
It's worth stopping by the Argyll Beaver Centre to learn more about this area from Oly and Pete. They also run guided walks which are definitely the best way to see the beavers.
These days, the southern boundary of Kilmartin Glen is formed by the man-made Crinan Canal. Famously described as Britain's most Beautiful Shortcut, it was built in the early 1800s to allow ships to bypass the Kintyre Peninsular and the treacherous waters of the North Channel.
Further south past Knapdale, you'll come to the pretty village of Tayvallich, which has a pub serving excellent seafood dishes. At the end of this peninsula is the tidal island of Danna, which has possibly the best views across to the stunning Isle of Jura.
Getting to Kilmartin Glen
Because it is so far off the beaten track, getting to Kilmartin Glen by public transport is pretty much impossible - realistically you'll need to drive yourself. Most visitors come from Glasgow via the Loch Fyne road, or down from Oban.
There's plenty of accommodation nearby, and it's worth staying in the area for a couple of days to properly appreciate the history and natural beauty.
Why not add Kilmartin Glen to your Scottish holiday? Here at The tartan Road, we'd love to help you organise it - Kilmartin Glen is just down the road from our headquarters near Oban, and we absolutely love the area.